"It was an experience of collaboration like I'd never had before," says the actress Emma Stone of the making of La La Land as we sit down at Santa Barbara's Biltmore Hotel to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter's 'Awards Chatter' podcast. The 28-year-old won the best actress SAG Award and is nominated for the best actress Oscar for her portrayal of Mia, a struggling young actress in love with Ryan Gosling's struggling young musician Sebastian, in Damien Chazelle's original musical — one of a record-tying 14 nominations bestowed upon it by the Academy — which hits home for her as much as anyone. "I do understand a lot of what Mia's going through," she says, noting that reading Chazelle's script for the first time both "lifted me up and broke my heart."
Born in Scottsdale, Arizona, Stone has been drawn to acting for as long as she can remember. She began putting on shows at the age of four or five, and was convinced she had found her calling after starring, as a first grader, in a school play. But, at the age of seven, she suffered her first panic attack, which marked the beginning of a period of "debilitating" anxiety that, as she puts it, "locked me up for a couple of years." She eventually got out of her own head by joining a Phoenix youth theater and its improv troupe and, at the age of 14, she successfully lobbied her parents to let her temporarily move to Los Angeles to pursue professional work. Accompanied by her mother for what was intended to be just pilot season, she wound up extending her visit and ultimately booking a part in the TV movie The New Partridge Family, the first in a line of small parts.
Thanks to a scene-stealing performance in the raunchy 2007 comedy Superbad — for which producer Judd Apatow asked her to dye her blonde hair red, establishing the look that she has maintained ever since — Stone's career began to surge, and before long she landed her first solo vehicle, 2010's Easy A, which made her a star. Becoming famous "was a very strange adjustment," the actress concedes, but she embraced the professional opportunities that came with it. Just a year later, Stone starred in two hits, the summer rom-com Crazy, Stupid, Love (the first of her three on-screen pairings with Gosling, with 2013's Gangster Squad coming between it and La La Land) and the fall literary adaptation The Help (which brought her and her castmates the best ensemble SAG Award and also garnered a best picture Oscar nomination).
Over the years since, Stone has dabbled in all sorts of artistic endeavors. She helped to reboot a comic book film franchise, Spider-Man, opposite Andrew Garfield in 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man and its 2014 sequel The Amazing Spider-Man 2. She starred in Woody Allen movies in back-to-back years, 2014's Magic in the Moonlight and 2015's Irrational Man. She starred on Broadway for three months as Sally Bowles, "the ultimate part" for an actress, in the most recent revival of Cabaret (which the actress regards as the best experience of her career up to that point "outside of hosting SNL"). And she blew people away with her performance as Michael Keaton's rebellious daughter in Alejandro G. Inarritu's Birdman, which was awarded the best picture Oscar in early 2015, and for which she received a best supporting actress Oscar nom. That film's technical tightrope-walk was, Stone says, "something that, at first, was horrifying — I developed a bit of an eye-twitch — but by the end became addictive and super-liberating and, I think, fueled the excitement to do something, eventually, like La La Land."
Chazelle saw Stone in Cabaret and asked to meet with her. Over lunch, he told her about his vision for La La Land and, after a period of trepidation on her part, got her commitment to star in it opposite Gosling. "It was very hard for me to conceptualize the tone of La La Land at first," she admits, "but he was so patient with me." Following a three-month rehearsal period, during which she improved her singing, learned to tap dance, studied classic musicals and helped to develop her and Gosling's characters by sharing personal anecdotes with Chazelle, it was go time. And anyone who has seen her and Gosling's enchanting "A Lovely Night" sequence or heard her triumphant "Audition," which she performed live on screen, or simply given themselves over to the story at the center of the film — which has a 93 percent favorable rating on RottenTomatoes.com and has grossed $269 million worldwide (on a $30 million budget) — can tell you that she and her collaborators more than rose to the occasion. "It was very emotional," Stone says of seeing the finished product.